Anthony Joshua boxed like a master and delivered his knock-out statement to declare himself the fully-matured world heavyweight champion at 31.
Boxing’s first crowd for nine months rose to acclaim the finished article in Wembley Arena – and still the demon finisher.
Oven-ready, as the Prime Minister is prone to saying, for two mega-nights with Tyson Fury next year to decide who will be the first undisputed heavyweight king since Lennox Lews.
Anthony Joshua is ready for two mega-nights with Tyson Fury next year after his latest triumph
A crowd returned to live boxing for the first time and their hero was back too with a vital win
Agreed, said Joshua. Yes, echoed promoter Eddie Hearn. And so say all of us.
Bulgaria’s veteran warrior, Kubrat Pulev, was never going to be quick enough, big enough and clever enough to spring the greatest upset of his life in the twilight of his career. But by god he brought a concrete chin and a gigantic heart to the making of the perfect night for Joshua.
Joshua put him down twice and virtually out in the third round and those viewing either in the house or their front rooms thought it was all over.
Somehow, the mandatory challenger for one of AJ’s collection of alphabelts got to the bell smiling. But although he managed to edge just one round on my card, he soaked up more sickening punishment.
Bulgarian opponent Kubrat Pulev showed plenty of durability and heart as he took on Joshua
The 31-year-old knocked Pulev down more than once before earning an impressive stoppage
From the ramrod left jab which is the foundation of his work and even more hurtfully the right hooks and uppercuts which fill out his repertoire.
The two fights against Andy Ruiz – the unbelievable knock-out shocker in New York and the dancing with the devil in Saudi Arabia – have polished both elements of his game into a brilliant amalgam.
It climaxed in a ninth round comprising two more thunderous knock-downs, from the second of which there was no recover.
The first thousand fight followers to be allowed back into any of boxing’s British bear-pits for nine months were bathed in soft blue light as they took their places in the depths of an azure ocean of seats in Wembley Arena.
The visual mood was more that of a supper club but despite the 11,500 vacancies the volume grew louder and the atmosphere increasingly boisterous the nearer it came to the big one.
The buzz heightened when Floyd Mayweather made it 1,001 onlookers as he made a last-minute appearance at ringside ‘to see one of the best heavyweights in the world.’
Briton Joshua made his long-awaited return to defend his belts against veteran slugger Pulev
The Londoner made a fiery entrance before a familiar crowd rendition of the hit Sweet Caroline
That was the signal for the customary rousing rendition of Sweet Caroline.
The corner-men could still be heard barking their instructions but there was increased hubbub in the bubble as the night wore on.
If London really is to be smothered under the Tier Three blanket of the anti-Covid lockdown this week and again after Christmas, that will come as a body blow to this sport which, dangerously brutal thought it can be, has gone through the most Draconian hoops to make itself safe, healthy and secure during this pandemic.
Of course, there were nerves. Not only in the house but also a hint of tension in the home dressing room.
Joshua declined to predict that he would make a statement as well as take a victory important in the context of where he and Tyson Fury go from here. Preferably into the 90,000 seater Stadium a short walk across Wembley Way, not ust jonce but twice next year.
There had been a hint of tension in the home dressing room ahead of Joshua’s knockout win
One of his expanding team went so far as to hang a towel over a Sky camera perched in the ceiling of that sanctuary, obscuring the view of the first rituals of preparation before it was removed for the hand-wrapping.
Pulev, by contrast, was the picture of relaxation. But then he had less to lose. As Joshua said: ‘For me, there’s a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.’
The Bulgarian was hoping that Joshua was taking him for granted but there was no sign of complacency in the physical condition.
Muscle was restored to the limbs he had trained to comparative sinews for the rematch against Andy Ruiz Jr last December in Saudi Arabia, in which he retrieved his belts from Mexico’s taco man by speed rather than power.
Pulev kept him waiting with his delayed entrance. But that only encouraged the socially distanced crowd to find full voice for Joshua’s emergence in all-white through giant, burning AJ initials.
A fitting start to his UK and Wembley homecoming.
Joshua took his time to find his range in a comfortable win against the heavyweight challenger
After the weigh-in verbals there was visible respect at the onset. Both felt their way with left jabs. Joshua looked the sharper and also threw in a right cross to secure the first round. 10-9
No repeat thus far of the dancing Joshua of the second Ruiz fight and another heavy right elicited from Pulev the kind of nervous smile which usually indicates it was felt. And still Joshua was winning the battle of the jabs. 10-9
Pulev trying to rough him up but Joshua turns control into an onslaught. One massive right hand was followed by a barrage of them.
Pulev tried to smile his way out of trouble. Not a good idea. He stumbled into the ropes for one count, then went down for another eight count and into deep trouble.
How was he still standing at the end of the third, let alone risking angering Joshua by clipping him after the bell? 10-7
Joshua began to find meaningful success against Pulev in the third round, knocking him down
The mandatory challenger’s own fitness was as phenomenal as his survival instinct and he was helped in getting through the fourth as Joshua reverted to classic boxing. 10-9
Pulev looked to have found a second wind but he had to take withstand two massive right hands. But late in the round it was Johshua’s turn to turn on the smile as he was caught by a couple himself. 10-9
‘Back to your boxing,’ trainer Bob McCracken told AJ. But Pulev had regained all his senses and landed lefts and rights of his own as he turned it into more of a war and won his first round on my card. 9-10. This time there were smiles all round. 9-10
Pulev was eventually worn out as Joshua took a more aggressive approach to end the contest
Joshua wheeled out the uppercut in response. Not once, but six times. Again Pulev soaked it up. 10-9
Pulev landed the first big right of the eighth and shook Joshua for the first time. But AJ gave it back with interest, with more of the uppercuts which had pulled out his famous victory over Klitschko. 10-9
The fight and the belts were surely beyond Pulev now if it were to go the distance. But the A-Jab the U-cuts set him up for the finish, rounded off by a vicious right cross which put him down twice, the second time for good. And off went AJ to ringside to be smothered in congratulations from Mayweather.
Boxing great Floyd Mayweather was at ringside to congratulate Joshua after his performance